Rocking a Different Helmet

“This is exactly why we bought these hardhats. This takes care of any doubt that anybody ever had—even if these hardhats look weird or they cost more money. This clarifies everything for everybody. Because now I’ve got an employee who’s going to go home to his family.”

Curtis Rasmuson, FMO, Bighorn National Forest

By Paul Keller

This is a hit-in-the-head survivor success story that should interest you.

After the recent Two More Chains on helmets was posted, Jon Warder, Fire Management Officer on the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, contacted Travis Dotson, our Analyst here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC).

Jon told Travis how his Forest’s Wildland Fire Module members wear a special Kevlar-based wildland helmet that he feels are an improvement over the traditional helmets most fire crews wear. (While they use the “Pacific New Zealand” made in New Zealand, these heavier Kevlar-based helmets are also available from other companies.)

jason photo1

Members of Jason Rodriguez’s Wildland Fire Module wearing their “Pacific New Zealand” helmets.

Jon explained how he is certain this unique helmet saved the life of Jason Rodriguez, his Wildland Fire Module’s Superintendent. Would Travis want to talk with Jason about his experience? You bet!

So Jason and Travis got on the telephone and had a lessons learned conversation. Travis started by asking Jason for some background details.

Before you talk about your recent helmet survivor story, could you explain how you guys first heard about these special helmets?

One of our guys went out on a Falling Boss assignment in Oregon where he worked with a professional faller who was wearing this style hardhat. It’s what the fire crews use in New Zealand. They also use them for mountain rescue type work there.

So they had this tree that was approximately 250-feet tall. While they were working on it, a branch—six to eight inches in diameter—came out of it. That limb came down and smacked that faller in the head pretty good.

His hardhat successfully repelled a good amount of force. That limb dented-in his hardhat just a little bit. They didn’t pull pieces out of his head or anything like you would expect. That hardhat took the brunt of the force. It was caved-in a little on the inside but not a whole lot, probably about two inches in from the hardhat’s bottom side.

Everyone there was certain that hardhat saved this guy’s life.

So when our employee came back, he told us what had happened. After that, Curtis Rasmuson, my FMO, was like, “We’re not using our hardhats anymore. You guys are getting these New Zealand style ones. I don’t care how much money they cost.”

He said that getting these hardhats is going to save somebody’s life.

And when you look at all the falling incidents that have happened and people who got smacked on the melon, it makes sense. I mean, we run around in the woods 90 percent of the time, somebody’s melon is going to get smacked at some point.

So that’s how we came to be wearing these hardhats. You need to give people the best safety equipment possible. We feel that these hardhats are better than what we had been using.

What does the helmet look and feel like?

It’s a ball-cap style hardhat. So you’re not going to get that shading on the back of your neck that you do with a full brim hardhat. It’s just a little bit heavier, but not that much—you really don’t feel much of a difference. In fact, none of my folks complain about them being any heavier than the other ones were. Inside the helmet there’s a built-in suspension system. It also has a ratchet tightener in back.

At the end of the first season that we wore these new hardhats I asked everyone for their input. Everyone agreed that they liked them.

Do people ask you about them when you’re out and about?

Definitely. Wherever we go, quite a few people ask us about them. And lots of people take pictures of them. On the last burn assignment I went on, I had two of the FMOs there take a real interest in them. I tried to give them the same explanation and information that I’m talking to you about right now. They were very, very impressed with them.

When we first got them, we got some flack just because they do look different. People would say: “Those are kind of weird – blah blah blah.” It’s just change, just like anything else. Nomex has changed since I first started. Everything changes from time to time. These hardhats are just another one of those deals where people are starting to find different safety equipment that’s working better. I can see it’s going to keep changing; it’s going to keep evolving. And I think that’s what needs to happen.

How much do they cost?

The cost is around $200 to $300 each. But look at some of the other things we spend money on. I think they’re worth the price, for sure.

So what happened to you last summer?

I was doing a recon on some prescribed fire units. It’s quite a hike to get around most of the units, some are very remote and really overgrown with a lot of heavy dead and down, everything you can imagine.

The slopes are anywhere from 30 to 80 percent. I’d been hiking for about an hour and a half. Everything was going OK. That’s when I was crossing a huge rock scree and heard something above me. I turned to look—it was a huge boulder headed right for me.

I knew I didn’t have enough time to get out of the way. So I quickly turned my back. I had my pack on and everything—my hardhat, all my PPE. That boulder hit me square in the back and sent me flying. It launched me a good 10-feet forward.

My hardhat remained on top of my head. My head smacked straight into another rock.

Jason photo2

The damage that was done to the exterior of Jason’s helmet.

I got up. I was oriented. I knew where I was. I actually had cell service and called my Forest FMO and told him where I was. With the GPS on my phone I pinged the location and sent it to him—just as a precaution.

The impact cracked my helmet pretty good. It took a nice little piece out of the top of my hardhat (see photo). But that Kevlar helmet did what it was supposed to do. A little piece of Kevlar was peeled off on top and it was dented in a little bit, but it wasn’t anything crazy.

I feel like that hardhat saved my life.

I was able to do a 45-minute hike down the hill to a road and got picked up there. We headed into town and did all the paperwork stuff that you get to do.

When I got back into my office my FMO called me.

“This is exactly why we bought these,” he said. “This takes care of any doubt that anybody ever had—even if these hardhats look weird or they cost more money. This clarifies everything for everybody. Because now I’ve got an employee who’s going to go home to his family.”

14 thoughts on “Rocking a Different Helmet

  1. That’s some good writing there….

    Wonder if GSA/DLA will put THOSE in the Wildland Catalog

    Nice addition…still like my Bullard “Cap” But hey if there’s a new idear out there…let’s have it!!

    • Pacific New Zealand, Model is R5 is the model we use. There are other models, but we choose the R5 model. Search it up “Pacific New Zealand Model R5″…

  2. Above all else, this profession is about the people.

    Jon and Curtis – Thank you for leading with your actions and showing how valuable our people are.

  3. Who did you order them from? The recommended US distributor from Pacific New Zealand website did not have the R5 on their website.

  4. Overall I like the Pacific Helmets. They seem to be tougher and this article that seems to support the idea.

    That said, they are different from the current standard helmet which means you’re going to be making trade-offs in exchanging one piece of PPE for another. That means you’re in for a struggle if they’re bought with the expectation these are going to be everything your old helmet was, plus more. Often successful integration of new equipment for a crew (or ways of working for that matter) is as simple as openly discussing the trade-offs in one design over another and making the conscious decision to accept both the good and bad. Based on this, here are a few of the “negatives” of the pacific helmets so they don’t catch your crew by surprise:

    One issue relates to the chin strap design which Y forks around the ear with a plastic adjuster and plastic sliders, and doesn’t sit tight against the head. When you combine this with the earmuffs you get a poor seal compared to the standard flat chin strap configuration which negates a lot of the purpose of earmuffs – it means I end up wearing ear plugs instead of muffs. These helmets are designed with different working practices in mind compared to the North American models, which means the issue is less evident to crews in NZ (IE less to no chainsaw work, less to no close helicopter work, switching to separate earmuffs without a helmet when operating pumps, historically fewer radios per crew meaning less need to monitor radios or talk by quickly pushing an earmuff back to talk then put it back on).

    The article states that the helmets are only a little bit heavier. When switching from the plastic to pacific helmets the weight was noticed on our end. It’s not terrible, but it is noticed, especially on long days. Might also be the function of different helmet types and additional face shields, earmuffs etc.

    The face shield design features a single point pivot meaning that when the face shield is up, it sits high or forward of your forehead, resulting in having to duck lower and earlier to avoid hanging up on things or risk having the shield flip backwards and tilt your head back if it does hang up. By comparison the peltor 2 axis pivot design sits close to the helmet so doesn’t seem to have the same effect, and if bumped slides forward or pushes into the helmet rather than flipping upwards and backwards. Also not a fan of the clear half face shield, but it looks like the mesh shields are larger.

    Lastly, some of the helmets have shown some cracking between the drill points in the helmet material (for mounting components) when the points are close together. This is rare and appears to only be on the interior clear coat. I’m guessing it’s cosmetic, but it’s something I’ve noticed so worth mentioning.

    Most of my experience is with the BR9SC helmets, though have worn a few others.

    Overall, Pacific helmets are a good design – they excel in the one area you seldom really interact with – ability to protect your head from an impact. All the things I mentioned as negatives are largely solvable by changing the way I work rather than an intrinsic flaw in the helmet itself – certainly the people who have always used them don’t notice the issues. If you’re adopting these helmets your best bet is to directly address how the helmets will require a modification in how people work to avoid aggravation when they get in the way of old working procedures, and emphasize that in exchange the crews will be much safer and better protected from head injuries than with their old helmets. I’d say the exchange is worth it.

    (Also depending on your local rules, some non-pacific gear can be fitted to these helmets with a little ingenuity, giving you the best of both worlds).

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  7. I have a little bit of experience with these Pacific R-5 helmets from a few years ago (the newer models might be different?). I like the idea that they are safer and I would encourage folks to consider them for that reason. What I don’t like about them is the minimal brim that doesn’t keep much sun out of my eyes. A smaller concern would be how the chin strap was more difficult to keep organized and the shroud attachment wasn’t a simple Velcro attachment like I was used to. I hope they can remedy some of these details to make them more user friendly. While you can’t put a price on any one injury avoidance situation, I do think the price should come down hopefully with more competition in the market among brands, but hopefully that doesn’t prevent folks who need them from buying them currently. It would be interesting to see an engineering safety organization test not only the shells but the suspension systems of various helmets to determine which might have the best practical level of safety for timber work. There are a number of complications in understanding the forces at play in falling object accidents. Do you want the helmet to resist punctures and deformation or absorb energy through the shell or the suspension to save the spine at greater risk to the skull or vice versa? While we should push the helmet industry forward for more safety it is possible at some level there will always be trade-offs. So I currently have two of these R-5’s along with a traditional Bullard helmet and then a Stihl Chainsaw helmet. I like the convenience of the Stihl Chainsaw helmet for the face shield and the hearing protection but it probably is the weakest of the bunch. If I was doing mobile attack in the Great Basin I would probably stick with the Bullard for the greater brim and easier shroud use. If I was cutting big trees all the time I might opt for the Pacific R-5, but as I mentioned seeing an objective review from an engineering lab would be interesting.

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